published Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

Hamilton County eying stricter employee leave benefits

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger
Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Hoping to create a county workforce that is "more efficient and healthy," the Hamilton County mayor is proposing tighter guidelines surrounding the county employees' paid leave benefits.

Currently, employees can roll over whatever amount of leave they earn each year -- between 19 to 29 days. County Mayor Jim Coppinger has asked to lower that number to 10, leaving the rest under a "use it or lose it" policy.

"We think you'll have a healthier workforce if they're required not to go the entire year without any time off," Coppinger told county commissioners during an agenda session last week. "The people that choose to do that accrue a lot of leave in a short period of time."

Under the county's current policy, full-employees are allowed to accrue up to 210 days of unused leave time during the course of their employment.

After they announce retirement, employees have the option to stay on the county books until that earned leave time runs out, all the while receiving longevity pay, earning towards their retirement and receiving health benefits.

It also means that one budgeted position suddenly turns into two as the retired employee is replaced.

If Hamilton County commissioners vote today to amend the handbook policy, it will mean that upon retirement employees will be paid out the 210 leave days in one lump sum at their departure, instead of remaining on the books.

"Some employees do count on that last year," Coppinger said. "But we have absolutely zero productivity from them because they are not here."

The handbook change will also significantly change the leave accrual policy for new employees, cutting the maximum amount of leave time they are allowed to collect from 210 days to 100 days.

The mayor's office has been mulling over revisions to the employee handbook since the spring. Many of the leave policies have been in place for years, dating back to a time when there was more disparity in pay between the public and private sectors.

If approved by the commission today, the changes will go into effect in 60 days, to give current employees time to decide whether they want to retire under the terms of the old policy.

At this point, the mayor's office does not have projected savings estimates from the switch. The changes will only impact employees who fall under the county's general government handbook, which does not include the sheriff's office.

The changes would also impact SKIMP employees -- part-time county workers who put in 25 hours a week but also receive benefits. Instead of being able to collect a maximum of 144 leave days, new SKIMP employees will be limited to 63.

During last week's meeting, Commissioner Joe Graham questioned the accrual policy for SKIMP employees.

"In the private sector I don't know of any company in the world where you can work 25 hours and still get the benefits of a full-time employee," Graham said.

There are about a dozen SKIMP employees in Hamilton County, most of whom are in the health department, said Coppinger.

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